Back pain is one of the most prevalent sources of physical discomfort worldwide. Nearly one quarter of North American's struggle with it on a daily basis. As much as COVID-19 is real and terrifying, it's easy to lose sight of the other 'pandemics' that are festering, perhaps more slowly and subtly. The pain pandemic for instance, has now been labeled due to the ever-increasing existence of chronic pain across the continent. According to the CDC, more than one fifth of Americans struggle with chronic pain. There are some clear correlations to this rising issue, such as our increasingly poor diet, sedentary behaviour, and stress levels. Although these are convincing causes, I set out to do some research of my own. Why does pain have such a grip on our current society? It took me discovering some discomfort of my own to truly find out.
During this quarantine period, I've found myself sitting more often (no, I haven't been binging Tik Toks). This behaviour shift has lead to some intermittent, but relatively enfeebling back pain over the last couple of weeks. Although initially perturbed at the prospect of sleepless nights and laboured movements that would take on the frame of an old hag, I quickly became curious. There was more to this back pain phenomenon than I was seeing, or feeling. After digging through the literature, along with some introspection of my own case, I came to the conclusion that back pain, or any physical trauma, impacts the whole being. Now, how can a localized 'pathology' migrate to seemingly unrelated tissues and systems of the human body? More than ever, I believe the answer lies in the systems and models we live by. Here are the three lessons I've learned from looking at pain with a wider lens, ones that not only expedited my recovery process, but also helped me to become more in step with my complex, fascinating self.
Before reading further, here's a quick disclaimer. I'm not a doctor. I'm just sharing discoveries that have impacted me positively, and may or may not work for you. Thanks for understanding. Read on.
1) Pain can be elevated based on the paradigms you choose to believe.
A paradigm is a pattern or model; an outlook on life that is a generally accepted perspective. Think of it like the lenses on glasses, what we see isn't a completely accurate view of reality. Our outlook is one that's framed by our attitudes and interpretations. As the perception of pain is governed by our nervous system, having a 'paradigm shift' here may impact our physical ailments more than we think - stick with me here.
In the 21st century, our paradigms of success, stability, and wellness are often increasingly fragile and surface level. I like to blame this on social media, but I like to blame a lot of things on social media, so I'm sure there are other causal factors as well. Regardless, because our picture of health rarely encompasses our entire being (flip to the insta-famous body builder who is 'healthy'), our pain paradigm can take a critical hit. When the body gets damaged, it immediately cuts into the intimate layers of the mind, heart, and soul. This puncture is severe because our identity is too wrapped up in the physical form. Now envision yourself being grounded by principles such as faith, integrity, and patience -- characteristics of a human that can't be toppled over by the wind. When pain comes knocking, (and don't get me wrong, it's very real and very painful), you have the capacity to say, "this doesn't feel ok, but I know that I'm still ok".
Steven Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, puts it best when he says, "we don't need to be a slave to ineffective scripts of our past!" Once you remind yourself that physical pain doesn't have to penetrate your inner identity, you actually start feeling like you're worth seeking remedies for, as opposed to just sulking in despair.
2) In the context of pain, education is somewhat of a curse.
In browsing different resources on this topic, I discovered a fascinating podcast from Evidence in Motion that outlined the cultural differences of pain in America vs. Haiti. Seeing these two countries on paper, one would assume that Americans get better treatment, and therefore experience less discomfort due to the accessibility of their health care. The succinct answer is... not really. The vast development of scanning equipment, surgeries, and pharmaceuticals of modern medicine has taught us an "I'm broken and I'm not going to get better until I see an MRI" kind of mentality. Although there is certainly a space for all of these treatments when used appropriately, I feel as if the current medical model instructs us to lean on these tertiary prevention measures more than we should be.
In Haiti, American doctors and physical therapists quickly reported back stating that the patient's capacity to heal was much quicker than they've ever experienced. The collectively accepted reason was that these locals had a blank slate when it came to pain perception and treatment, no needless scans or meds to cloud their judgement. Without these barriers in place, Haitians believed more in their bodies' ability to heal naturally. Next time you experience minor pain, I challenge you to drop the medical paradigm, and pursue sustainable remedies over quick fixes. Looking to physical and occupational therapists, personal trainers, and dieticians can be good starting ground.
3) Mindfulness is key.
There is vast evidence to support the neurochemical and physical benefits of mindfulness. Even better news, mindfulness doesn't have to take on the form of yoga or a guided meditation. It could be walking, gardening, or anything else that allows you to be fully there. This practice can help decrease our heart rate and ventilation, lower cortisol levels, and even reduce the size of the amygdala, the 'fear center' of the brain.
A simple practice is labelling pain in a more palpable and consumable form factor. Often we either associate pain with being a mysterious, immovable force, or with words like 'stabbing' and 'shooting'. Reframing this can look like taking a few box breaths to remind yourself that you can be in control of bodily processes, or re-labelling your pain to slightly less threatening terms such as 'warm' or 'achey'. As I battled mindfulness during my miserable nights, I discovered that as I found space in my head, the tissues of my body seemed to 'breathe' a little more too. Although it wasn't an insta-fix magic pill, this practice certainly gave me more control over my body than I thought was possible in my pain-ridden state.
There you have it. Physical pain does affect the whole, but we have some authority over where its territory lies. The more we build awareness around just how much power it has over both individuals and our society, the quicker we can begin shifting ineffective scripts and maladaptive treatment techniques to find breakthrough. Before I ramble on for too long, let me leave you with this quote from Victor Frankl, a legend in the world of psychiatry. I believe it sums up a lot of what I've touched on quite nicely.
Between a stimulus and a response there is a space. In that space is the power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.